Every now and then, a video game comes along that causes you to completely reconsider what to expect from the medium. As someone who spent the bulk of their time gaming in the ‘90s and 2000s, I have always viewed video games as fairly straightforward and easily digestible. The most basic formula is to present players with a simple story and end-game goal. Sometimes, that goal is to traverse levels while avoiding and defeating enemies, such as in a Super Mario Bros. Other times, it may be to gather enough resources so that your character is powerful enough to survive in further areas of the game, as in a Diablo.
When Katana ZERO released in April of this year, I found that its approach strayed deceptively far from the norm. On its surface, Katana ZERO may come across as a typical platform-based slasher, but it is much more. Devolver Digital’s neo-noir masterpiece is actually a lesson in appreciating your in-game failures, not a quest to reach the ending credits.
Leveraging failure as a sort of in-game mechanic is nothing new. The grueling difficulty of Soulsborne titles is often their main draw—some players become infatuated with replaying a boss over and over, learning its intricacies, and dying their way to victory. As a more niche example, I Wanna Be the Boshy takes difficulty to an unfair extreme and has amassed a cult-like following due to it.
Katana ZERO has neither the depth of many of the Soulsborne titles nor the jarring hyper-difficulty of Boshy. Instead, it finds a way to make failure feel welcomed and necessary on the path to making success feel wholly satisfying.
In Katana ZERO, each level is presented as the backdrop of the nameless main character’s next assassination. The one-hit kill formula is tried and true, a core mechanic of the titles aforementioned, but Katana ZERO puts a fresh spin on it. The linearity of this mechanic, where everything has the same effective ‘attack power,’ allows Katana ZERO to feel fair and honest, as if the player has almost no excuse for dying—only an experience to learn from.
The same rule applies to our samurai—one hit, and the player is back to the start of the level. However, unlike other games where the character dies for the player’s mistake, Katana ZERO contextualizes everything as an assassination attempt. “No… That won’t work,” displays across the screen, and with the press of any button, the action resumes for another run.
Katana ZERO is viewed as the spiritual successor to Hotline Miami, but I also feel glimmers of Dustforce, given the movement scheme. The beautiful 2D sprites and frenzied action harmonize beautifully. One-tapping enemies and progressing through each stage begins to feel rhythmic and natural as you improve.
The ability to reflect enemies’ bullets throughout the game is the icing on the cake and, in my opinion, the single mechanic that makes this game feel so slick. While you will find yourself feeling like a complete badass doing this in real time, Katana ZERO offers a way for the player to slow time, which compliments the otherwise fast-paced action. This, combined with the boost of momentum from each sword swing and the screen shake and brief pause after each enemy is killed, creates an intoxicating flow. Perhaps this is intended by developer Askiisoft, as the protagonist is medicated with a futuristic drug, enabling these time-bending capabilities.
In perhaps the most appreciable lesson of ‘journey versus destination,’ all levels of the game end with a security camera recording of your successful run. It is a small and rewarding touch that provides players with enough downtime to take a deep breath following the game’s frenetic action.
While other games make failure feel harsh and punishing—an approach that is tough to criticize—Katana ZERO incorporates it as an essential part of the experience, and this lays the foundation for an action-platformer that feels more rewarding than I ever expected. If any 2020 one-hitters take a page out of Katana ZERO’s book, we should be in for a treat.